Alex Hopkinson has worked as a bus driver in south London for ten years. I visited him early in 2014 to talk about his father Derek’s Christmas lights. The Hopkinson’s family home on the corner of Homestead Way, New Addington is fabled for its electric Technicolor decorations – each December from the eighties, the house was lit up like a giant beacon of festivity.
Derek Hopkinson grew up in Hoxton, East London and as a boy worked in the east London markets. Derek picked up the patter and brogue associated with that world. Alex, now in his thirties, explained: “My father was a real showman… Everyone that met him loved ‘im… he was like a magnet… he never turned anyone away.”
In 1997 the London Weekend Tonight TV show ran a festive competition for the best decorated London home. It was the second time they had run the competition and a neighbour nominated the Hopkinsons. They won and the film crew visited with the good news. When Derek was asked why he did it, he told the reporter - “It’s just pleasure, just pleasure”.
The family moved to New Addington in 1984. New Addington is home to 20,000 residents, many of them from working-class families that were allocated a council property here on the edge of London in the sixties and seventies. The estate was a place of improvement for many working people, offering them a first real stable home, an escape from slum clearance and post-war austerity. During the seventies home ownership was very low, confined mainly to the oldest part of the estate built in the thirties and named after Charles Boot who envisioned Addington as a ‘garden village’. Thatcherism changed this and the level of home ownership during the eighties increased rapidly, as residents took up the ‘right to buy’ their homes. Families like my own and the Hopkinson’s bought their council houses.
The estate is much more socially variegated than outsiders would have it. Home ownership on the estate is 38% in Fieldway known locally as the ‘New Estate’ and 55% for the older ‘red brick houses’ in New Addington ward. This is relative low when compared with 69% for Croydon as a whole. The homes decorated extravagantly at Christmas are often – although no exclusively – the red-brick ones. The festive illumination of these homes does not simply reflect their economic status or spending power, rather the
Christmas lights are a seasonal gift to the estate as a whole.
Derek Hopkinson died in St Christopher’s hospice, Sydenham in 2004. Alex put up the Christmas lights that year and decided to “leave it at that”. They sold some of the ‘blow mould’ decorations that Derek had imported at considerable expense from the United States. In 2013 Alex wanted to rekindle the tradition in his Dad’s memory to mark the tenth anniversary of his passing.
On Sunday 1st December the Hopkinson’s Christmas lights were ‘turned on’ and it was a truly extraordinary spectacle, full of excitement and festive anticipation. A picture of Derek Hopkinson was mounted on the front of the house decorated by 10,000 lights, luminous reindeer and choirboys and of course, Father Christmas himself. Four hundred people assembled in front of the house in expectation, news had spread through word of mouth and Facebook. A local grandmother asked via Facebook if her grandaughter - Ellie - could switch them on. When Ellie flicked the switch at 7 pm, the Hopkinson’s treated their neighbours to a firework show launched from their back garden. One of Alex’s friends played Father Christmas and handed out 170 bags of sweets to children over the course of nearly two hours. They served teas and coffees from an urn in front of the house raising over £500 for charity on the night.
“You can do a class analysis of London with Christmas lights,” writes China Miéville astutely. In December class distinction can be discerned through peering through the window of most London homes. In poorer homes “the season is celebrated with chromatic surplus”; while the rich and middle-class “strive to distinguish themselves with White-lit Christmas trees”
Driving to New Addington seems to support Miéville's thesis. In affluent Beckenham homes are bathed in subtle white light sometimes with a luminous electric stag grazing on the lawn. “Ah good taste, as Picasso may or may not have said, what a dreadful thing,” writes Miéville. I am sure he would approve of New Addington where entire houses are illuminated with multi-coloured electric excess.
I ask Alex if there is a relationship between social class and Christmas decorations. He nods knowingly: “I think it’s people who have never had nothin’ who like to give back to people. You always find people who are poor always give and people that are rich don’t… and that’s the reason they stay rich for.” We laugh as he continues “When you think about it a lot of the rich people they sort of don’t give to people and that is the reason why they’ve got money.” Is that why they’ve got their classy white lights, I ask? “Exactly” he concludes.
The money raised from the collection box in front of their house will be donated to St Christopher’s Hospice. “Up here obviously a lot of people go there either with cancer or other illness. They were fantastic and allowed my mum to sleep in the next bed during his last few days so that they could be together. The money we raise will be given to them to help enable their work to go on,” says Alex.
At the heart of this story is an ordinary miracle. In contrast to the glitzy consumerism of the supermarkets and shopping centres that profit from Christmas, this is a spectacle of community - a gift given for free in hard times by a family to the estate. You can see it reflected in the faces of the children as they laugh excitedly and come to admire the glowing colours of the Christmas lights. There is no better tribute to Derek’s memory, one of New Addington’s best-loved characters.
As a child Kirsty MacColl lived close to New Addington. In her famous collaboration with the Pogues, Fairy Tale of New York – the greatest Christmas song of all time – she sings with Shane MacGowan “And the bells are ringing out. For Christmas Day.”
Somehow the Hopkinson’s festive decorations are reminiscent of that stirring refrain. Long may their electrified lights shine chromatically on the corner of Homestead Way at Christmas time.